Behind the Mask
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A white-knuckled father recounts his daughter's drive through the Land Rover off-road course in central England.
A QUIET CUL-DE-SAC, a country road, a deserted Costco parking lot — there are several places where I’d imagined my daughter would first get behind the wheel. Piloting a right-hand drive Range Rover through trails, streams, and steep descents was not one of them.
Yet here we are, at the Land Rover Young Off-Roader Experience in Solihull, England, where Land Rover lets children as young as 11 years old drive an actual SUV through their off-road course. And while putting my life (and the life of our instructor) in the hands of a girl who still can’t remember to throw her clothes in the laundry seems absolutely bonkers, here, it is apparently, perfectly legal.
My 11-year-old Adeline is pacing back and forth, sipping her decaffeinated Earl Grey tea and talking a mile a minute. “I’m going to drive a car? Like one I see on the road? What if I crash it?” she asks. I didn’t have an answer to that last one.
The Land Rover Young Off-Roader Experience in Solihull is designed to give kids and their white-knuckled parents an opportunity to discover the capabilities of these vehicles across a breadth of terrain. Terrain most Range Rovers will never see during their service as practical family cars.
Adeline's eyes go wide, and she lets out a childlike yelp as a front wheel gently arrives back on the ground.
Phil, Adeline’s instructor, arrives right on time. He’s warm and engaging, like a charming English uncle. “Have you ever driven before?” Phil asks Adeline. I don’t know if the British motorways are teeming with tweens, but in the United States, they frown upon operating a motor vehicle while still in the fifth grade. “Right then,” Phil says. “Off we go.”
We climb into a Fuji White Range Rover Velar, thankfully equipped with a second brake pedal located inside the passenger footwell. He drives us to the entrance of the off-road course, where Adeline switches places with Phil, hoisting herself into the driver’s seat of the roughly 4,300-pound SUV. Phil shows her the proper driving position and points out the off-road cameras and drive mode selector. “Do you know your left and right?” Phil asks. Sitting behind the wheel of a right-hand drive car for the first time, Adeline had to think for a beat. Admittedly, I was also a little directionally fuzzy after a week of navigating around the United Kingdom.
I grip the interior door handle as Adeline shifts the Velar into drive and smiles nervously at me in the back seat. I was there for her first steps; there when we took off her bicycle training wheels. Now she’s about to drive a Range Rover. Through the woods.
Land Rover’s Solihull facility is home to a punishing assemblage of water-filled gullies, rock crawls, inclines, and stone steps — terrain these vehicles are built to navigate without so much as a wheeze. But while we’re on the beginner course, it’s still challenging enough to demand that even a seasoned driver leave their latte in the cup holder and pay full attention.
Adeline guides the Velar over the loose dirt surface, shifting her gaze from the windshield to the screen in the dash that displays views from the cameras mounted in the front grille and under the mirrors. Phil is excellent. Calm, professional, speaking with clear instructions. (Well, clear if you’re used to his accent.) He’s not nearly as concerned as I am that she may confuse the accelerator and brake and send us straight into a tree. “Come round to your right, round to your right. A little more steering; cover the brake now,” Phil says. I notice Adeline checking her clearance and wheel position over obstacles. Her attention is glued to the screen like she’s watching a “Gilmore Girls” rerun on her iPad.
Just then, a small branch scrapes across the paintwork with a screech. I see Adeline cringe like she does when she slams the back door too hard. Phil remains unfazed. Maybe he’s a parent too. As the course grows more rigorous, the Velar pitches vertically, filling the windshield with a canopy of trees and sky. She feathers the gas as the SUV crests a hill and slowly finds the horizon again. This isn’t a race; in fact, our top speed hasn’t broken five miles per hour. The aim here is to learn control and proper positioning over the grades, ruts, and embankments. In the simplest terms, it’s the world’s slowest roller coaster. And with the Velar’s leather seats and dual-zone climate control, a comfortable one at that.
Phil guides Adeline into a section of deep, staggered ruts, and I smile because I know what’s coming. Soon, a rear wheel lifts off the ground, and the SUV starts to tip. We feel weightless for a beat, the Velar balancing on two diagonal wheels. “Ease off the brake,” Phil says. Adeline’s eyes go wide, and she lets out a childlike yelp as a front wheel gently arrives back on the ground. That’s what I wanted her to experience: the thrill of being just a little outside her comfort zone in a vehicle. Still safe, still under control, but driving recreationally for the first time, developing a new skill, and experiencing what a vehicle can do beyond the school drop-off line.
At the end of the course, Phil swaps seats with Adeline and drives us back into the parking lot. We step out to inspect the vehicle. “Now that’s the sign of good off-roading — a clean car and dirty tires!” Phil says with a smile. He’s right: no dents, no scratches, only tires caked in thick, English mud.
“That was so awesome!” Adeline beams. She stands back, takes in the Range Rover she’s just captained, and asks me to snap her photo. Then she thanks Phil with a firm handshake and good eye contact (clearly a testament to exemplary parenting) and heads straight into the lounge area, where the lovely staff offers her another cup of Earl Grey tea. “Can I get a shirt?” she asks, running over to the merchandise display. I nod, grateful she didn’t ask for a Range Rover.
John Chuldenko is a writer, director, and automotive journalist based in Los Angeles. He’s drawn to the magic of the road trip and the people, experiences, and emotions surrounding driving. John has been featured on NPR, and his work appears in Panorama, The Motoring Journal, Christophorus, and Craft&Tailored.
Ryan Johnson is an illustrator based in Brooklyn, NY and he works mostly from his home studio. His illustrations have been called eccentric, inventive, vibrant and exaggerated.
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